Bahrain: A Legacy of Broken Promises

Stories of revolutions take a long time to be told. The tides of change currently sweeping across the Middle East – steadily rattling one kleptocratic autocrat after the next – will amaze and no doubt exhaust the energies of subsequent generations as they attempt to build a theoretical edifice against which the overpowering outburst of collective human sentiment currently being witnessed gains some veritable empirical sense of meaning.

To even the most seasoned in the art, piecing together the jigsaws is quite a delicate task. Much of the ambiguity that pertains to the political futures of Tunisia and Egypt for instance draws from a lack of clarity as regards the forces that propelled these uprisings, their political leanings, and whether or not these actors have the structural capacities to actualise their aspirations. It is thus fair to say that we are far from being in a position to present an analytical framework to comprehend the gripping dynamics of the Middle East’s uprisings.

The above said however, it is quite easy to discount some ridiculous interpretations of unfolding events that have been disseminated by decrepit monarchs and quarters that have an unvoiced proclivity to maintain the present status quo. For more than a month now, the courageous people of Bahrain have taken to the streets to voice their demands against a ruling monarchy that bears all the hallmarks of a classical mafia-like kleptocratic authoritarian dictatorship. In the face of flying bullets and unending billows of choking teargas smoke, both the young and old have descended to the streets with remarkable valour and upheld entirely peaceful methods of protest. Indeed one of the separating features of the Bahraini uprising is the ubiquitous slogan of “silmiyya, silmiyya” (peaceful, peaceful!). The narrative promoted by the ruling Al-Khalifa monarchy, neighbouring dynastic sheikhdoms and their US patrons has centred however on an entirely bogus claim of supposed Iranian interference.

In recent times, the above claim has been recycled many a time over across the Arabian Peninsula from Kuwait to Yemen. Without measuring the credibility of these claims, the mainstream media has often regurgitated accusations in spite of the most glaring contradictions. In the current context of Bahrain, the suggestion of foreign interference in the shape of an ethereal “Iran threat” (whose promotion has become Secretary of State Clinton’s single-most absorbing vocation) does not only represent a wholesale neglect of factual evidence, but in fact proceeds to insult the sacrifices of generations of Bahrainis tracing back to the birth of the nation.

The Constitutional Dream

Having formally attained independence from British rule in 1971, the political situation in Bahrain was characterised by a great deal of vibrancy and optimism. The archipelago state had witnessed organised political action throughout the British protectorate period, particularly in the decades immediately prior to independence. Precursors to the organised demands for political reform that eventually prompted the Emir to dissolve the National Assembly and brazenly violate the constitution less than two years after its promulgation could be found most notably in the mid-Fifties with the broad mobilisation achieved by the National Union Committee (NUC). The NUC represented the highest symbol of a truly nationalist reform project with demands centred upon the empowerment of an elected legislature, an end to British colonial interference, a fairer socio-economic order and a fundamental revision of state security laws.

Echoing calls made a few decades earlier, the demands raised by leading political figures shortly after independence similarly attracted a broad national, cross-sectarian constituency. The tide of political activism that swept through much of the Middle East at the time was keenly felt in Bahrain. The stoning of British Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd’s, car in 1956 in protest against Britain’s continued interference in Bahraini affairs through the person of Sir Charles Belgrave, as well as regular strikes at the BAPCO petroleum refinery and organised protests during the Suez Crisis later in the same year are representative of the political mobilisation seen in Bahrain during the period. It also highlights the grassroots identification of political movements within the country with the wider Arab situation.

Bahrain’s first post-independence head of state, Emir Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa’s, decision to dissolve the National Assembly in 1975 set the tone however for a period that came to be defined by the jockeying for power between the Emir and his sibling, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa. According to most Bahrainis, much of the nation’s contemporary woes trace back to the birth of the nation and the unconstitutional steps undertaken by the first Emir. The popular political narrative thus begins with a great deal of discontent and mistrust towards the Al-Khalifa monarchy.

With a steady decline in the standard of living, rising unemployment and a suffocated public space resulting from years of absolute autocratic rule epitomised by the enforcement of the State Security Law of 1974, nationalist and leftist movements began a series of consultations in June 1990 to discuss the deteriorating situation in Bahrain. Leftists groups had been heavily weakened over the years due to the hard-handed crackdown by the monarchy for the industrial trade strikes of 1974.

These consultations climaxed with the formation of the People’s Petition Committee, and the open petition of October 1994 which was signed by more than 23,000 signatories. The demands set out therein underscored the primary need to restore the National Assembly, and highlighted the debilitating consequences of the Emir’s constitutional transgressions:

“The reality we now face dictates that we will fail our duty if we do not speak-out frankly to you. Your wise leadership witnesses the incorrect circumstances that our country is passing through amid the changing regional and international environment while the constitutional institution is absent. Had the banning of the National assembly been lifted, it would have enabled overcoming the negative accumulations which hinder the progress of our country. We are facing crises with dwindling opportunities and exits, the ever-worsening unemployment situation, the mounting inflation, the losses to the business sector, the problems generated by the nationality (citizenship) decrees and the prevention of many of our children from returning to their homeland. In addition, there are the laws which were enacted during the absence of the parliament which restrict the freedom of citizens and contradict the Constitution. This was accompanied by lack of freedom of expression and opinion and the total subordination of the press to the executive power. These problems, your Highness, have forced us as citizens to demand the restoration of the National Assembly, and the involvement of women in the democratic process. This could be achieved by free elections, if you decide not to recall the dissolved parliament to convene in accordance with article 65 of the Constitution…”

Akin to his reactions in 1975, the Emir now in the third-decade of his absolute rule brutally cracked down on nationalist groups and exiled leading figures including the current secretary general of Bahrain’s largest political group Al-Wifaq, Sheikh Ali Salman. Rather expectedly, the monarchy placed the finger of blame for the unrest on external forces, i.e., the Islamic Republic of Iran and Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah. In order to quell the popular uprising, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also dispatched two brigades of its National Guard (around 4,000 soldiers).

By the time of the Emir’s death in 1999, Bahrain boasted a horrendous human rights track record including widespread practise of torture under the instruction of British colonial officer Ian Henderson. The promises of reform made by the incumbent Emir Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa were partly inspired by the failure of the iron-fist policies to weigh in the discontent, and also in order to buttress his own standing against his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, who wielded a great deal of power acquired over three successive decades as Prime Minister; a position the latter continues to enjoy 40 years after his appointment.

The spirit of optimism was short-lived however, as the Emir reneged on his promises of meaningful reform. The “Bahrain model”, as it has condescendingly come to be known, essentially served to project an illusion of reform without altering in any substantive way, the pre-existing decision-making and power structures. Assurances made by the King in the National Action Charter (overwhelmingly supported by 98% of those who voted between 14-15 February 2002) to institute an assembly that would be elected through free and direct elections in effect gave veracity to the home-grown nature of the pro-democracy movement and its legitimate demands.

The Pearl Protests

As hundreds took to the streets on February 14 in their ‘Day of Rage’, the King’s henchmen had by then already settled on the solution of a violent suppression. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt where live ammunition was employed after a few days of protests, in Bahrain its resort was almost immediate with the first fatality, Ali Abdulhadi Mushayma, falling on the first day of protests.

The date for the protests, 14th February, was deliberately chosen to provide a clear message to the ruling Al-Khalifa family that the hollow reforms enacted as part of the National Action Charter process had been far from satisfactory. Just as with decades past, the demands of protesters drew from the fundamental frustrations of generations who aspired for real constitutional reforms and a substantive role for an elected national assembly with legislative powers.

The monarchy’s brutal resort to violence that has thus far resulted in the deaths of at least 25 innocents served to exacerbate hopes in the reform-driven process, and has in turn directed grievances at the highest symbol of the status quo, namely, the Al-Khalifa rule. In essence, the ruling family’s desire for an absolute monopoly of power presents an intractable quandary that cannot be permanently masked by the duplicitous reforms carried out since 2002. Faced with the alternative of relenting some of its power to more democratic institutions or to violently suppress the calls for change, the Al-Khalifa regime has clearly selected the latter choice.

Since the outset of protests more than a month ago, Bahrain’s phony veneer of a progressive, liberal form of rule has been crushed before the world. The systematic silencing of journalists, use of live ammunition against defenceless protesters, dozens of arbitrarily detained individuals including major political opposition figures, shameful attacks on hospitals and medical teams, and the targeting of entire villages and neighbourhoods have all served to disclose the reality of the Al-Khalifa monarchy.

The outdated tactic of brandishing the pro-democracy movement within Bahrain as foreign-backed is principally used to deflect attention from the consistent demands for constitutional reform. In this regard, the role of the US in obstructing meaningful reforms and allowing for the gross misrepresentation of the demands of the political opposition has been pivotal. For obvious geopolitical stakes, the continued hosting of the Fifth Fleet base and unequivocal support for successive US military operations stretching from the Gulf War, the Al-Khalifa monarchy has been looked upon by Washington as a key strategic ally. The hypothesized domino-effect and shared fate that connects Bahrain and Saudi Arabia also looms large, no doubt, for US and western officials.

Shortly on the heels of their participation in a seminar at the House of Lords in London to highlight the deterioration in human rights and freedoms, the detention of leading opposition figures in August 2010 was met with the blanket support of US ambassador Adam Ereli who censured them for taking their case outside the shores of Bahrain. Their subsequent torture and the wall of silence erected in the face of journalists also drew little comment from western capitals.

The developments in Bahrain in recent weeks are in fact symptomatic of the confluence of interests of local autocratic tyrannies and imperial powers who continue to hinge their hegemonic agendas to the nightmarish reigns of unpopular despots. For decades, the pre-eminence of geopolitical and energy interests in the foreign policy outlooks of the US and its allies has relegated the suffering of millions of Arabs to a footnote that merit the occasional remonstrations or hand-wringing. All the while, the warehouses of these military-autocratic establishments have been filled with western arms in deals that run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

Revolutions certainly do take a long time to be told, but the time it takes for long compressed frustrations to burst out and overpower the most dictatorial reigns is almost instantaneous in comparison. For the US and its allies, the experiences in Egypt and Tunisia should be reason enough to return to the drawing books.

But more importantly, the uprising peoples of the Middle East have definitively established that the aspirations of peoples cannot forever be ignored in the equations of power. They have proven that real change can only occur in the absence of western tanks and fighter jets. To these brave men and women, the free peoples of the world owe great admiration and respect. The annals of history are lit with the sacrifices of selfless martyrs, and in recent weeks more glorious epics have been added to its volumes. Over time, many have sought to deface the most honourable sacrifices; the least we can do from afar is to ensure that these uprisings are placed within their correct historical, political and socio-economic contexts.

Ali Jawad is a political activist and a member of the AhlulBayt Islamic Mission (AIM). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Ali, or visit Ali's website.